The Best Ghost Towns in Illinois

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Illinois ghost towns are unique among the world’s haunted places. Take your pick from flooded mid-century cities, immigrant-proud gangster havens, and time capsules of abandoned buildings that will make your bones shudder. 
Illinois is more than just Chicago and small agricultural towns. This state is full of fascinating ghost towns, decaying buildings, and historic charm. Note that seasonal flooding may prevent you from exploring one of the towns on this list, but that’s just part of the thrill!
Be aware that, in addition to seasonal flooding, there are many other challenges that face drivers who visit Illinois ghost towns. Remote locations, poorly maintained highways, and other dangers could throw a sizable wrench in your plans. 
Make sure you have a great car insurance policy (get help from Jerry) before you head out. We can’t stop ghosts from chasing you, but we can make sure you have someone to help you change a flat tire.
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Cairo

A view of a building from below zoomed in at the signage that reads FAMOUS, in disrepair.
Department store in Cairo, Illinois

What is the story of Cairo?

Cairo, Illinois was a rapidly growing city in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a port town and rail hub, located near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Unfortunately, the Great Depression had a huge impact on this area. 
In 1937, Cairo had the highest murder rate in the entire state, and 7% of the population was employed as sex workers. Fires and high unemployment bred organized crime in the middle part of the 20th century. On top of that, ongoing racism and resistance to the civil rights movement decimated the town’s population.
Today, the population of Cairo is 2,800. It is a living ghost town stuck in time, no longer the vibrant place it used to be when trains and steamboats ruled the world. 
In Cairo, prepare to come face to face with the economic destruction of a quaint Midwestern town struggling to grapple with the past.

What makes Cairo special?

When you think of “ghost town,” you probably imagine some dusty street in Arizona or California. It’s rare to see a Midwestern ghost town, still trying to escape its past.
  • Cairo is a time capsule showing what racial discrimination can do to a town.
  • Authentic decaying houses and real abandoned businesses are still visible—you won’t find any tourist shops here.
  • Cairo’s railroad bridge was built in 1952 and still handles train traffic today.
  • The city’s location meant it had strategic importance during the Civil War—Fort Defiance was built here.
  • It’s the only city in Illinois to be surrounded by levees. 
  • Several blocks of Cairo are in the National Register of Historic Places due to their architectural significance.
To sum up, Cairo is special because it is a living ghost town. Because the city has gone through many evolutions, visitors can see remnants of every era in this unique Midwestern town.
Pro Tip Be sensitive when visiting Cairo. Remember, real people still live in this town.

How to visit Cairo

Cairo is located in the southern part of Illinois known as Little Egypt, not far from the Kentucky and Missouri borders. This ghost town is about six hours away from Chicago and about two and a half hours away from Memphis, Nashville, and St. Louis.
From Chicago, head south on I-57 and take exit 1 to US-51. Continue south on US-51 until you get to Cairo.
From Memphis, you’ll take I-55 N and cross through Arkansas and Missouri. Take exit 66A for I-57 N and then exit 1 toward Cairo.
From Nashville, take I-24 W and then cross into Kentucky. Turn onto US-62 W and continue straight as it turns into KY-286. When you arrive in Wickliffe, turn right onto 4th Street and left onto Green Street. Follow US-51 N and then turn right onto the Ohio River Scenic Byway until you reach Cairo.
From St. Louis, head south on I-55 for about an hour and 40 minutes. Head east on MO-74 E and cross into Illinois. Take IL-3 south, turning right after about 18 miles to stay on IL-3 until you reach Cairo.
When you arrive, Washington Avenue is the best place to begin your adventure. 

Shawneetown

View from above of a river cutting through the land, with rocky outcroppings on the right and a winter forest on the left.
River

What is the story of Shawneetown?

This town was founded in 1748 by the indigenous Pekowi Shawnee. It was a major trading and banking town in the late 1700s—so famous that Lewis and Clark stopped here. 
Unfortunately, Shawneetown is located right on the Ohio River. Floods ravaged the town, and in 1937, a major flood basically destroyed everything. People fled and businesses were abandoned.
Today, the population is less than 300 people. Though it’s no longer a bustling town, it’s still possible to catch a glimpse of the shipping trade materials, old buildings, and the famous Shawneetown Bank. 

What makes Shawneetown special?

Old Shawneetown is incredibly special. It’s a living ghost town that looks like an abandoned movie set. Visitors can meander the streets and imagine what life was like during Shawneetown’s heyday in the 1800s and early 1900s.
  • The old brick school in Shawneetown is a beautiful piece of Midwestern architecture.
  • A tribute to its status as a major banking hub, the Shawneetown Bank’s Greek Revival-style facade is still standing today.
  • Tons of abandoned buildings, churches, and antique displays are open to visitors.
  • There’s a self-guided walking tour organized by the town.
Pro Tip People still live in Shawneetown, and they’re very proud of their history. Bring an attitude of curiosity and you’ll discover more than you bargained for here.

How to visit Shawneetown

Old Shawneetown is about five and a half hours from Chicago, two and a half hours from St. Louis, MO, three hours from Louisville, KY, and two hours 45 minutes from Nashville, TN.
Make sure you enter “Old Shawneetown” into your navigation system. The ghost town is right on the Ohio River. 
When you arrive, the John Marshall House Museum is a good place to start. There is one restaurant in Old Shawneetown if you get peckish, but you’ll find better food options five minutes up the road in Shawneetown.

Kaskaskia

An old blue car with greenery growing on it and through it and around it, disrupting the view of the car.
Blue car being over taken by nature

What is the story of Kaskaskia?

The story of Kaskaskia is one of fighting Mother Nature, isolation, and adaptation. 
The former state capital of Illinois, Kaskaskia was a trading town that grew to prominence in the 1800s. It was originally named for the indigenous peoples who lived here
Kaskaskia is famous for hosting the “Liberty Bell of the West,” gifted to the Illinois Catholic Church from the French King Louis XV. It was rung in 1778 to celebrate liberation from the British.
Flooding has been a constant threat for this town, and much of it was destroyed in 1881. The Mississippi River even shifted course at one point, isolating the town from the rest of the state.
The island is inaccessible unless you travel by boat or own a truck that can handle several feet of water. The main road into town, La Grande Rue, is frequently flooded. Major events are often canceled due to flooding
Today, Kaskaskia is a proud town with a fascinating history. Many original inhabitants have left the island in search of an easier way of life. But those residents who remain (all 18 of them) are resilient—and live under the constant threat of isolation.

What makes Kaskaskia special?

It’s a little like a real-life fairytale here. A once-prosperous farming community is swept away by floods, leaving only a few remaining families and homes. If you’re looking to escape into another world, Kaskaskia is a perfect portal.
  • There is no store on the island, only homes, workshops, and historic buildings.
  • Many people have left for nearby towns, but there has not been an official evacuation order.
  • Constant flooding means that Kaskaskia will probably be completely underwater one day.
  • It is the second smallest town in Illinois, with a population of 18 in 2017.

How to visit Kaskaskia

Kaskaskia is located near the Illinois/Missouri border, only one hour and 15 minutes south of St. Louis. Be aware that flooding may prevent access to the town, so please check weather reports ahead of time.
From Chicago, Springfield, or St. Louis, follow I-55 S along the Mississippi River until you reach the town of Ozora. Turn left onto State Highway J, right onto US-61 S, left onto State Highway U, left onto Co Road 15, then keep right onto North Kings Highway. 
Finally, turn left on La Grande Rue (if it’s not flooded) and you’ll arrive in Kaskaskia.
Bring food, water, and medicine for yourself—you won’t find any corner stores or grocery stores here in Kaskaskia. It’s free to visit, but plan ahead, so you don’t get stranded.

Benld

A backlit tree in the foreground of a rural Illinois countryside.
Tree at sunset in rural Illinois

What is the story of Benld?

Benld was a coal mining town established in 1904 and named for its founder Benjamin L. Dorsey (Ben L.D.). Benld’s population included Italians, Russians, Croats, and other Europeans who immigrated here to work in the mines. 
As far as the 1950s, Italian was spoken on the street here. Italian architecture and businesses are still visible in Benld today, such as the Italian Club and the Amore restaurant. During Prohibition, many Italian residents would crush grapes in their basements in the old family tradition.
Benld has connections to Illinois’s mobster underground, too—Al Capone allegedly hid a distillery in a fake coal mine (the “No. 5 Mine”) on the edge of town. 
It’s easy for modern visitors to delve into the fascinating history of Benld. Today, there is a roadside display, several old buildings, Capone’s Saloon and Pub, and a No. 5 Winery. 

What makes Benld special?

Nothing gets the American imagination going better than gangster stories—and Benld is the perfect backdrop for your wildest Illinois daydreams about Route 66 in the early 1900s.
  • The Coliseum was originally a music and dance venue that was destroyed in a fire. Today, it’s been converted into shops that still recall the building’s epic history.
  • A roadside display offers more information for visitors from out-of-town.
  • The Benld Meteor is one of the few in history that has hit a manmade object. You can see the Pontiac that was hit at the Field Museum in Chicago.
You won’t find any fanciful paranormal tales here in Benld (although some people say the Coliseum is haunted by ghosts). However, Benld is a unique place with a vibrant immigrant history and an unlikely astronomical claim to fame.

How to visit Benld

Benld is located on the outskirts of St. Louis, just 48 minutes northeast of downtown. Take I-55 N and then IL-138 W until you reach Benld.
From Springfield or Chicago, get on I-55 S, then take exit 44 to Benld via IL-138 W. 
This is a fascinating town with plenty of modern conveniences. Make sure to stop by an immigrant-owned business like Amore to fuel up before you explore.

Don’t get ghosted—get good car insurance

A good car insurance company is there for you when you need it. They won’t put you on hold, overcharge you for coverage, or leave you stranded. Do you trust your car insurance company?
Let Jerry help you find a great policy and a great company. Ghost towns are often located in remote places, after all. It’s very important to make sure you have the right coverage before you head off on a big adventure to an Illinois ghost town.
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